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BSPN Insider: San Antonio Spurs: '13-14 Forecast

San Antonio Spurs: '13-14 Forecast
Originally Published: October 7, 2013
By Bradford Doolittle | ESPN Insider


Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have kept their team's window of opportunity open.

The Spurs have been an aging team on the downhill slide for about five years now, if you believe the many harbingers of doom that accompany their preseason forecasts every fall. San Antonio remains an elite team with an old core, but after coming within seconds of winning another championship, it would be foolish to dismiss Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs from the ranks of legitimate title contenders.

San Antonio returned to elite status on the defensive end last season, with Duncan playing like a man 10 years younger. Despite injuries to Manu Ginobili throughout the season, and Tony Parker during the spring, the offense was seventh in the league and executed as precisely as ever. During the playoffs, the Spurs were the best in the West on both ends of the floor.

How long can it continue? That's the question that will plague San Antonio every offseason until Duncan and his merry band ride off into the Texas sunset. San Antonio remains among the very best scouting and development organizations in the league. Beyond the big three, players like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter have all been uncovered outside of the lottery. However, the Spurs have had the luxury up till now of scouting players to fit with their championship core. What happens when that core crumbles?

The Spurs are banking on that not happening for a couple of years, at least. Performance-wise, there is little reason to be concerned about Duncan or Parker. Ginobili once again battled injuries, and this time, his production seemed to waver. Ginobili struggled for much of the Finals matchup against Miami, though Popovich stuck with him for better or worse.
After the season, Ginobili re-upped with the Spurs after briefly pondering retirement, keeping the big three intact for at least another couple of years. That kicked off a mostly quiet offseason, in which the Spurs let rotation players DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal leave, and replaced them with Marco Belinelli and Jeff Ayres. Chances are no one will notice a difference.
With Leonard evolving into a potential All-Star, and Green establishing himself as perhaps the league's best role player, the Spurs will remain firmly in the championship conversation. Any talk about replacing the big three is just going to have to wait.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Tim Duncan delivered some great performances during the run to the 2013 NBA Finals.

With the Spurs morphing increasingly into an offensive team in recent years, it can be easy to forget that San Antonio's dynasty had been forged on the defensive system Popovich built around Duncan so long ago. Last season, the old Spurs returned to an elite level on the defensive end, with Duncan turning back the clock and Parker leading an offensive attack that didn't lose a step. In the end, San Antonio fell one crummy defensive rebound short of winning its fifth championship during the Popovich-Duncan era.

Duncan's resurgence was the biggest story of the season. With a renewed focus on diet, nutrition and flexibility, Duncan's athletic indicators popped. At 37, he posted the best defensive rebound and shot-block rates of his Hall of Fame career. His ability to fit with Splitter on both ends allowed the Spurs to stay big the bulk of the time, and freed outstanding wing defenders Green and Leonard to harass opposing shooters. The Spurs' defensive ranking improved from 11th to third. Once again, San Antonio ranked in the top five in limiting 3-point looks, but with Duncan and Splitter walling off the paint, the Spurs jumped 10 spots in opponent's 2-point percentage, and 14 spots in block rate.

W-L: 58-24 (Pythagorean W-L: 61-21)
Offensive Efficiency: 110.4 (7th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.3 (3rd)
Pace Factor: 92.5 (2nd)
Highest WARP: Tim Duncan (12.4)

Duncan's resurgence and the development of Leonard and Green helped offset an injury-plagued season for Ginobili, as well as Parker's late season leg problems. While the offense slipped a bit in the ordinal rankings, the Spurs were still seventh in the league and the renewed emphasis on defense paid off at playoff time. San Antonio led the Western Conference in postseason efficiency on both ends of the court, with an offensive rating topped league-wide only by Miami. The Heat, as it turned out, were the one team that could get Splitter off the floor, breaking up San Antonio's airtight big lineup.

Parker was garnering MVP support before the injuries slowed him down in the latter part of the season, though Duncan was the Spur who probably should have been getting the attention. Both players ranked in the top 10 league-wide in WARP at the time Parker was hurt, and both ended up in the top 25.

Parker was joined in the starting backcourt by Green, who cemented his status as one of the most dangerous 3-point shooters in the league. Green shot 43 percent from deep during the regular season, then stayed hot through the postseason. He broke Ray Allen's record for 3s in a Finals series, and forced Miami to alter its defense to take away his open looks.

Leonard became more offense-oriented in his second season, and really blossomed during the Spurs' postseason run. He's become a dangerous 3-point shooter from the corners, to augment Green's unlimited range out top. Both players run the baseline tirelessly, making them perfect complements for the pick-and-roll action of Parker, Duncan, Ginobili and Splitter.

The Spurs' player development program continued to turn up useful role players. Cory Joseph spent much of the regular season in the D-League, but was Parker's primary backup by the time the playoffs rolled around. Nando de Colo came over from overseas and showed promise as a combo guard. Aron Baynes was signed from Australia during the season and has potential to fill the offensive rebounding void created by DeJuan Blair's departure after the season.

Bottom line: The Spurs' machine chugged along with nary a hiccup. San Antonio has won at least 61 percent of its games in all 16 seasons of Duncan's career. If it came up short -- barely -- of championship No. 5, the rise of young players like Green and Leonard served notice that the Spurs' dynasty is alive and well.


D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images
Marco Belinelli looks to become the latest piece that falls into place for the Spurs' ensemble.

The Spurs' offseason was quieter than most, and San Antonio projects to return about 88 percent of its minutes from last season, second most in the league behind Miami. Of course, that means the Spurs collectively are another year older, and with a projected minutes-weighted age of 30.1 years, San Antonio figures to be the NBA's fifth-oldest team.
The offseason began right after the Finals, when Patrick Mills and Boris Diaw each exercised player options to return. For Diaw, the decision was a no-brainer, because he was unlikely to attract much above the minimum out on the market. Diaw is showing his age athletically, but Popovich has been so crafty with how Diaw is used, he's never been more efficient.

For Mills, the decision was a little more difficult. As a streaky, explosive scoring point guard, he could hold down an important spot on some team's bench. However, he slipped to third on San Antonio's point guard depth chart behind Parker and Joseph. Mills will again challenge Joseph and de Colo for court time this season.

At draft time, the Spurs added to their arsenal of overseas prospects. Livio Jean-Charles went in the first round at No. 28, but the long, athletic Frenchman is staying in Europe for another season. He'll be joined by San Antonio's second-round pick, forward Deshaun Thomas, who showed legit scoring punch during the Las Vegas Summer League.

When the annual NBA moratorium on transactions set in at the beginning of July, that's when the hard work started for Popovich and R.C. Buford. Ginobili was an unrestricted free agent, albeit one who exactly nobody thought would be going anywhere. Splitter was a restricted free agent, and there was a looming possibility that a center-starved team could make him an offer the Spurs couldn't afford to match.

As it turned out, there was no drama in either situation. Ginobili took a pay cut commensurate with his decline in durability and production, signing a two-year, $14 million deal that will quite likely be his last NBA contract. Splitter never even signed an offer sheet with another team, and took a four-year, $36 million contract with San Antonio that will eventually leave him as the Spurs' primary big man in place of Duncan.

The Spurs had a couple of choices to make on second-unit players, with Neal eligible for restricted free agency, and Matt Bonner owning a partially guaranteed deal for 2013-14. Bonner's specialized skill set is hard to replace, so San Antonio didn't hesitate to fully guarantee next season. However, after Neal initially received a qualifying offer, the Spurs yanked it back in order to free cap space. Neal eventually signed with the Milwaukee Bucks.

To replace Neal on the roster, former Bull Belinelli signed with the Spurs on a two-year, $5.6 million deal. Belinelli is a skilled role player who sometimes fancies himself as more than that, and the result is inefficiency. While Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau is every bit the exacting perfectionist that Popovich is, no one has a better track record than Pop of getting players to focus their games on what they do best. If Belinelli doesn't become an efficient player in San Antonio, his next stop will likely be back in Europe.

The final bit of business was to fill the rotation spot formerly held by Blair. Blair fell out of favor in San Antonio and was a noncontributor by the time the playoffs started. There was talk of letting him go as far back as the All-Star break. So it wasn't a big-minute player that San Antonio needed. The Spurs settled on Ayres -- formerly Jeff Pendergraph -- who can fill Blair's rebounding void, while adding some additional midrange shooting.

2013-14 OUTLOOK

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard return in 2013-14 to make another run.

The Spurs are as proactive as any organization in the NBA, but they know when to hold 'em, as it were, and you can't break up a championship foundation when it's still functioning at that level. The assumption will be by many that last spring's narrow miss in the Finals was the last great hurrah of the Popovich-Duncan era. And it may well be. However, a gambling man shouldn't bet against another San Antonio run deep into the postseason.

Projected Offensive Rating: 110.6 (6th)
Projected Defensive Rating: 105.3 (1st)
Effective (weighted) age: 30.0 (6th)

The Spurs figure to be right in the mix with Houston, the L.A. Clippers, Memphis and Oklahoma City for the West's top seed. Both the offense and the defense project to be in the league's top 10, the offensive attack in the top five. Age and durability are the concerns, as always, but no one does a better job than Popovich of coaching around those particular factors.

The player to watch will be Leonard, who looked in the postseason like a player ready to occupy a different role. If Ginobili has less to offer, or if Duncan regresses some from his remarkable comeback season, it will be Leonard who is looked upon to pick up the slack.

SCHOENE Projection: 60-22, 1st in Southwest, 1st in Western Conference

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